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Diversifying Our Professional Literature

This post is written by member Rose Peterson. 

rosepetersonI cracked the cover of the school’s grammar textbook, frantically hoping to find something I could salvage for the next day’s required weekly grammar lesson. I located the section on capitalization, a skill that had proven to be a struggle for my students. I was stunned by the answers to Section 12:

  1. Arctic
  2. Irish, Norse
  3. Scandinavian, Celtic
  4. Icelandic, pro-Norwegian

Textbook bias was no longer a distant problem when I looked from the brown faces of my students down to the whitewashed answers in my grammar textbook. In today’s public schools, black students represent approximately 26 percent of students, 50 percent of students here in Milwaukee, and 99 percent of students in my classes, but the majority of curricular materials continue to cater to white audiences. I firmly closed the cover, and thus began my journey of creating meaningful work for my kids from scratch.

The next logical step on this journey was turning to professional literature. While there is something to be gained from everything read, I find reading professional literature to be stickier now that I am teaching in an urban setting. I get excited about what teachers elsewhere are doing with their kids, and I leap to implement those ideas in my own classroom, forgetting that my kids are still learning how to “do school,” to write one-paragraph journals in 10 minutes, to be quiet for longer than 15 seconds at a time. Everything requires serious adaptation. It is exhausting enough to be an urban educator at all—to remain patient in the face of serious behavioral issues, to attend countless IEP meetings and expulsion hearings, to withstand district pressure about failure rates—but creating, or at least adapting, appropriate curriculum on top of the unique everyday strain is the added weight that drives urban teachers back into the comprehension questions in textbooks.

Nonetheless, my frustration is just a glimpse of the reality my kids experience daily when they try to reconcile their experiences in black communities with the white world that dominates the media. They, too, must adapt everything. Nothing is ready-made for young black kids other than the way of the streets.

As the critically conscious, culturally compassionate NCTE members we are, we have done a great job of advocating for adding diverse texts to our classroom libraries, for offering kids alternative realities to those the world may project. What we sometimes forget, though, is that while we fill gaps in young adult literature, many cultural gaps are ever widening in professional literature. We have authors like Sharon Draper, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson bringing diverse experiences to classroom libraries across the country. Where are equivalent champions of diversity in the realm of professional literature? There are no Penny Kittles or Kelly Gallaghers or Jeff Wilhelms or Donalyn Millers of the hood.

There may be the occasional book—For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, or classics by authors like Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—but other than that, the genre is sparsely populated. We see a handful of rotated lessons, the most popular of which relies upon Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. While the album is truly brilliant, this heavily used lesson concept is not enough. First, as any other teacher, urban teachers have dozens of weeks to fill, and a single album is not enough material to engage students for an entire school year. We need more ideas and inspiration for relevant, culturally responsive curriculum than a single album. Secondly, while this lesson is intended to be relevant to urban students’ lives, my kids do not even listen to Kendrick Lamar. They listen to Lud Foe and Bless Team and Lil Boosie. Well-intentioned as it may be, this “social justice lesson plan” ends up being yet another thing urban teachers have to adapt.

I am not in search of a copy-and-paste curriculum; I am in search of inspiration and ideas that come from a place of understanding about black urban students to help me teach them in ways that help them reach their potential instead of assuming they’re already there.

I want to know it can happen. I want to know I am not crazy for believing in my kids. I want to believe that independent reading and writing workshop and multigenre research projects and self-guided learning can work with my urban, black kids. I want to know I am not the only one struggling to figure out how. In order for this to happen, we must diversify our professional literature just as we have diversified our classroom libraries to reflect the experiences of teachers in diverse environments.

Black kids already know that this world is not kind to them. As their teachers, the least we can do is ensure that our professional literature helps us make our English classrooms welcoming and relevant to their lives.

Rose Peterson is a first-year English teacher at an urban high school in Milwaukee. Follow her @therosepeterson.